As of April 1, Tanzania had 19 confirmed coronavirus cases nationwide—with one death and no known cases in the town of Mwanza, where we live. The week before, we had 13 cases; so at least for the time being, the curve is going up much slower than in other parts of the world. This may be due in part to the fact that after the first case was confirmed, all schools and universities closed. Also few people here travel abroad, reducing the number of cases brought into the country.
Fortunately, most Tanzanians still spend the majority of their day outdoors. We have ample fresh air and sunshine. Although there is still a lot of movement of people, it is occurring out in the open air. People are required to either wash their hands or use hand sanitizer before entering any building. At the small open market up the street from our house, there are hand-washing stations set up at either end. People are religiously washing their hands. No shaking hands. And we still have plenty of toilet paper and soap.
A growing concern is that living conditions here are often cramped—with an entire family living in one or two small rooms. The potential for the virus spreading within families and crowded neighborhoods is great.
We are especially concerned about our clients at Uzima Centre. Those who are HIV-positive are vulnerable because of lower immunity. The orphans are all coming from homes where the heads of the household work as day laborers. Whatever is earned that day puts food on the table that night. No work means no food. If the country implements strict lock-down rules and people are unable to leave their homes, many will starve. No one can afford to stock up on food. Hoarding is a luxury that poor people cannot even imagine.
All students are home, but without tablets or chromebooks, Google Classroom or worksheets, their education has come to a halt.
The government here is aware that they do not have the capacity to deal with a scenario like what the U.S. is facing. Thanks to the World Health Organization, testing is currently available, but our district hospital only has two ventilators—that is, assuming they are both working and we have electricity! We will be completely unable to handle more than a very few cases at any given time.
Maryknoll Lay Missioners did offer us all the option of returning to the United States. Although I am “high risk” due to a chronic inflammatory lung disease, I opted to stay here. It seemed riskier to travel and to relocate to a country that now has more cases than anywhere else in the world, than to just stay put. So here I am.
For the time being I am working from home. We have modified our services, but Uzima Centre remains open. Although we can no longer hold support group meetings, clients can still receive medical and food assistance. Starting April 4, the orphans and vulnerable children we serve will come in on Saturdays, but they can’t stay and play. In place of lunch, they will receive rice to take home to supplement the beans they are given.
As Pope Francis reminded us during his Urbi et Orbi blessing, “We are all in the same boat” and we are riding out this storm together. How touching it is to see the selfless response of so many people around the world.
I ask that you each look creatively at how you can not only take care of yourself, but also lighten the burden for others. If at all possible, please continue to support Maryknoll Lay Missioners, so that we can continue providing services to some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
Let us cling to the words of Psalm 10:17:
The desire of the afflicted you hear, O Lord; strengthening their hearts, you pay heed. Amen
Peace and deep breaths,